Home      Discussion      Topics      Dictionary      Almanac
Signup       Login
Powhatan language

Powhatan language

Ask a question about 'Powhatan language'
Start a new discussion about 'Powhatan language'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
Powhatan or Virginia Algonquian is an extinct language
Extinct language
An extinct language is a language that no longer has any speakers., or that is no longer in current use. Extinct languages are sometimes contrasted with dead languages, which are still known and used in special contexts in written form, but not as ordinary spoken languages for everyday communication...

 belonging to the Eastern Algonquian
Eastern Algonquian languages
The Eastern Algonquian languages constitute a subgroup of the Algonquian languages. Prior to European contact, Eastern Algonquian consisted of at least seventeen languages collectively occupying the Atlantic coast of North America and adjacent inland areas, from the Canadian Maritime provinces to...

 subgroup of the Algonquian languages
Algonquian languages
The Algonquian languages also Algonkian) are a subfamily of Native American languages which includes most of the languages in the Algic language family. The name of the Algonquian language family is distinguished from the orthographically similar Algonquin dialect of the Ojibwe language, which is a...

. It was spoken by the Powhatan
The Powhatan is the name of a Virginia Indian confederation of tribes. It is estimated that there were about 14,000–21,000 of these native Powhatan people in eastern Virginia when the English settled Jamestown in 1607...

 people of tidewater Virginia. It became extinct around the 1790s after speakers switched to English. The sole documentary evidence for this language is two short wordlists recorded around the time of first European contact. William Strachey
William Strachey
William Strachey was an English writer whose works are among the primary sources for the early history of the English colonisation of North America...

 recorded about 500 words and Captain John Smith recorded only about 50 words. Smith also reported the existence of a pidgin
A pidgin , or pidgin language, is a simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common. It is most commonly employed in situations such as trade, or where both groups speak languages different from the language of the...

 form of Powhatan, but virtually nothing is known of it. Strachey’s material was collected sometime between 1610 and 1611, and probably written up from his notes in 1612 and 1613, after he had returned to England. It was never published in his lifetime, although he made a second copy in 1618. The second copy was published in 1849, and the first in 1955. Smith’s material was collected between 1607 and 1609 and published in 1612 and again in 1624. There is no indication of the location where he collected his material. In 1975, the Algonquianist Siebert published a book length study proclaiming the "reconstitution" of the phonology of the language.

Dialect variation

Siebert's 1975 study also examined evidence for dialect variation. He found insufficient justification for assigning any apparent dialects to particular areas. Strachey’s material reflects considerable lexical variation and minor phonological variation, suggesting the existence of dialect differentiation. A speculative connection to the Chickahominy
Chickahominy (tribe)
The Chickahominy are a tribe of Virginia Indians who primarily live in Charles City County midway between Richmond and Williamsburg in the Commonwealth of Virginia. This area is not far from where they lived in 1600....

 and Pamunkey
The Pamunkey nation are one of eleven Virginia Indian tribes recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The historical tribe was part of the Powhatan paramountcy, made up of Algonquian-speaking tribes. The Powhatan paramount chiefdom was made up over 30 tribes, estimated to total about...

 Virginia Algonquian tribes has been suggested, but there is no evidence to support this link.

The table below gives a sample of words reflecting lexical variation. Each word is given as written by Smith or Strachey, followed by a proposed phonemic representation
In a language or dialect, a phoneme is the smallest segmental unit of sound employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances....

Powhatan Words Representing Two Dialects
English Dialect A Orthographic Dialect A Transcription Dialect B Orthographic Dialect B Transcription
sun , /ki·so·ss/ /nepass/
roe /wa·hk/ /osi·ka·n/
copper /osa·wa·ss/ , /matassen/
he is asleep , /nepe·w/ /kawi·w/
(his) thigh /opo·m/ /wi·kkway/
arrow /ato·ns/ /askwiwa·n/
muskrat /ossaskwe·ss/ /mossaskwe·ss/
raccoon /a·re·hkan/ (plural) /e·sepan/

Loan words from Powhatan in English

Siebert credited Powhatan with being the source of more English loans than any other indigenous language. Most such words were likely borrowed very early, probably before Powhatan-English conflict arose in 1622. Among these words are: chinquapin
-Plants:* Chinquapin or chinkapin, any of the shrubs in the genus Castanopsis* Chinquapin or chinkapin, any of the several trees and shrubs in the genus Chrysolepis* Chinquapin or chinkapin, some of the species in the chestnut genus Castanea...

(Castanea pumila), chum
Chum is a fabulous person Chum may refer to:*Chum salmon, a kind of salmon , native to the northern Pacific and adjacent waterways* Chum is a slang term for a friend....

(as in chumming
Chumming is the practice of luring animals, usually fish or sharks, by throwing "chum" into the water. Chum often consists of fish parts and blood, which attract fish, particularly sharks due to their keen sense of smell....

), hickory
Trees in the genus Carya are commonly known as hickory, derived from the Powhatan language of Virginia. The genus includes 17–19 species of deciduous trees with pinnately compound leaves and big nuts...

, hominy
Hominy or nixtamal is dried maize kernels which have been treated with an alkali in a process called nixtamalization.The English term hominy is derived from the Powhatan language word for maize. Many other Native American cultures also made hominy and integrated it into their diet...

matchcoat, moccasin
A Moccasin is a form of shoe worn by Native Americans, as well as by hunters, traders, and settlers in the frontier regions of North America.Moccasin may also refer to:* Moccasin , an American Thoroughbred racehorse-Places:...

The muskrat , the only species in genus Ondatra, is a medium-sized semi-aquatic rodent native to North America, and introduced in parts of Europe, Asia, and South America. The muskrat is found in wetlands and is a very successful animal over a wide range of climates and habitats...

opposum, persimmon
A persimmon is the edible fruit of a number of species of trees in the genus Diospyros in the ebony wood family . The word Diospyros means "the fire of Zeus" in ancient Greek. As a tree, it is a perennial plant...

The pokeweeds, also known as pokebush, pokeberry, pokeroot, poke sallet, polk salad, polk salat, polk sallet, inkberry or ombú, comprise the genus Phytolacca, perennial plants native to North America, South America, East Asia and New Zealand...

, pone (as in corn pone), raccoon
Procyon is a genus of nocturnal mammals, comprising three species commonly known as raccoons, in the family Procyonidae. The most familiar species, the common raccoon , is often known simply as "the" raccoon, as the two other raccoon species in the genus are native only to the tropics and are...

A terrapin is a turtle living in fresh or brackish water.Terrapin may also refer to:* Terrapin , a transport vehicle used for amphibious assault by the Allies during the Second World War...

Tomahawk usually refers to:* Tomahawk , a type of axe made and used by Native Americans* Tomahawk , a cruise missile built in the United StatesIt may also mean:- Military and transportation :...

and wicopy
Dirca is a genus of three or four species of flowering plants in the family Thymelaeaceae, native to North America. The genus is named after Dirce in Greek mythology. The general common name for this deciduous shrub is leatherwood; others include moosewood, ropebark and Powhatan-derived wicopy...


Use of Powhatan words in a 21st century movie

For the film The New World, which retells the story of the English colonization of Virginia, Blair Rudes, a specialist in the American Indian languages of North Carolina and Virginia, took the Strachey and Smith wordlists and invented a language for the purposes of dialog in the film. The sentences put in the mouths of the actors as "Powhatan" were Rudes' personal synthesis of the scanty attested vocabulary of the Powhatan language with the grammar of other Algonquian languages. Several accounts in the news media used enthusiastic terms such as "restoration" or "revival" to describe this linguistic invention.

See also

  • List of English words of Algonquian origin
  • Carolina Algonquian

External links